The King in Yellow
A poorly-made Tackk for a strangely wonderful book.
By: Hannah Nixon
Synopsis for the Thing
So basically, the collection of short novels are all based around the idea of the King in Yellow and insanity. Some stories were based more on human interaction while others were more focused on the individual's decent into crazy. But all in all, it's about bad and weird things happening to people.
Characters are a Thing
The King in Yellow
Over the course of the novel, the only development the King in Yellow goes through is becoming more and more known to the audience. He, as an individual, is fairly constant. I found that he was a symbol for the devil early on but as the King popped up again and again, I started to question that assumption. Maybe he was the embodiment of insanity. Maybe he was the devil and his appearance, his hand was the mark of insanity. Maybe he was just some guy who really didn't want you to read his play, I mean geez guys give the poor man his creative license; it's not cool to read someone's work without their permission. I doubt that last one but we never really learn more than the bare minimum of the King in Yellow.
I consistently think he is the devil because of the quotes that surround him. It talks about his ability to control the dead, in the Yellow Sign with the security guard. This is the story in which we have the most interaction with the King in Yellow directly, as of what happens at the end. It mentions what my group pieced to be his equivalent of hell, his ability to murder in inhuman ways, and the insanity that surrounds him like a cloud.
Seen in two of the ten stories, he was originally a completely pointless blob of character. He didn't add anything in his first appearance in 'The Mask' as a sidekick to Boris. Then we get a better look at him in 'The Yellow Sign', the timing of which is debatable. I think it takes place after the other story but it's never specifically stated. My assumption comes from the fact that this story ends with him dying, but as we see in the same story, death isn't always a successful deterrent.
In this story, the readers sees the willingness of Jack to question his surroundings, one of his skills as an artist, and eventually give himself up to insanity when he feels like that's what he should do. Jack goes with his gut and is one of my favorite characters of the whole story. I liked the two completely different views we got of him between the two stories, one showing him from an outsider's, an acquaintance's, point of view and the other with him as the narrator. It was a wonderful commentary on the differences between what we put out into the world and what we really are like.
She's mentioned in three of the stories and two of them, she doesn't really even say a word, so I'm not really sure how she words as a character but I feel like she represents something in terms of the story. Sylvia is in 'The Mask', 'The Street of the Four Winds', and 'The Street of the First Shell'. She's this weird, almost unreal being for our first two encounters with her. In both, she is only mentioned and we never actually meet her, but Sylvia serves as someone known by a person in each story. In 'The Mask', we only hear her name, not anything else. Then in 'The Street of the Four Winds', the narrator finds her cat who ultimately leads them back to her. He seems to know her very well in the past, and knows her enough to be comfortable just chilling with her dead body all night.
Finally, in 'The Street of the First Shell', we actually encounter Sylvia and, for me at least, a lot of things fall into place. She is with a man named Jack Trent (a connection to the Jack Scott in 'The Mask'?) and they have a child. Then there is this whole part in which we find out that she is also in love with a man named only Hartman. We find that our Sylvia is caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of her love life but her beauty and loving nature are both referenced multiple times. This leads me to believe that they are all the same Sylvia, that her loving nature and pretty face has just left a wake of heartbroken men who think of her often.
Themes are a Thing
Insanity comes from everywhere, in any form.
The story I'd like to draw your attention to first is 'The Mask'. Let's talk about Alec because Booboo really just isn't a person. My favorite quote that illustrates his kind of crazy is on page 60, saying "The mask of self-deception was no longer a mask for me; it was a part of me." He's driven crazy by his love for Genevieve and his inability to have her due to her relationship with Boris and his own loyalty to Boris. He is eventually driven crazy by his own self-control, his "mask" that he wears to keep himself from going after his love and to keep everyone else from seeing his love. The mask of his is worn for so long that it becomes part of his identity. The symbol of self-control and self-restraint has been in place for so long that it is not there without his need of it; it is it's own now, not his. That drives him insane.
My next example that I have come from pretty much every story in the book, in some way. It's the insanity that comes from sorrow, grief, anger, and general feelings. This is shown in 'The Yellow Sign' by the characters reading "The King in Yellow". It is there again in the experience of loss of a loved one. These include "The Mask" (with Boris), "The Demoiselle D'ys", "The Street of the Four Winds", and also, in a loss of trust in a loved one (which is abstractly a loss of the individual themselves in that you lose your previous view of them along with that trust) seen in "The Street of the First Shell".
The connection between art and madness.
We see it in the characters that were written into the story. Nearly all are artists of some sort: sculptors, painters, writers. If they aren't artists in profession, we find that they have that similar, stereotypical characteristics of trying to absorb their surroundings that can be found in artists and trying to use what they find to make something new and amazing.
The link between the artist and madness is a historic one. It can be found throughout the ages of history, literature, and in actual lives of artists. I suppose it has to do something with the art having to be able to reach them, that they have to open themselves up entirely to the world around them, and that eventually ruins them.
Victorian Era is a Thing
This book was big into the idea of Naturalism, the thing that says humans don't cause anything and it's all just external forces that run your life. In this series, that external force is the King in Yellow. He controls everything, both obviously in the first half of the novel and almost 'behind the scenes' in the latter short stories. His presence is really up for debate in those latter tales. My group members didn't really sense him; Jesse even suggested that those stories are the examples of things that could have happened, the courses that would have been taken, had the King not been involved at all. While I like that idea, it doesn't make sense in terms of what we know. It doesn't make sense that the being that has been controlling everything would just disappear and give up that control. That's not how control works. It also goes against this main facet of Victorian writing because if the King in Yellow isn't controlling their lives, that would imply that they are in control, and that's not a thing.
Victorian Era Connections:
Poem- Lucifer in Starlight by George Meredith
For all the times that I have read this poem, the major connection I have found is that only those who accept Satan will find him. The poem addresses the idea that there is no natural place for Lucifer, that he was condemned to wander and search through crowds of millions, already inclined to not interact with him, and find those who need him. The idea is that God has made the world and man-kind so well that it isn't even up to humans whether or not we go bad. We are programmed to want to do what we need to and to do what is right. Therefore, the only thing Lucifer can do is to persuade us away from that and hope that it works. The book, meanwhile, shows us through the reading of the play that those who try to change themselves are met only with the King in Yellow, Lucifer. We also see how he stalks those he wants, how he changes someone and pulls them from their current path into one that he can control. Both of these are about Lucifer's need to have power over people and the two pieces of literature are using the same idea: if the devil wants you, he may have to fight for you but he can still win out in the end.
Painting- Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais
A Victorian era piece, done in 1851 by Sir John Everett Millais, has one main characteristic very clearly found in 'The King in Yellow'. It depicts insanity of a young girl, a horrible and tragic moment, but it does so with beauty. The details are clear and exquisite but they only add to the sadness of the event of this picture. Ophelia killed herself by not being able to save herself; her insanity effectively kills her. Insanity, a very central idea in 'The King in Yellow', is shows with near admiration in it's wonderful picture. Still the point stands that insanity is all-consuming, rather like beauty is commonly called.
This Book is a Thing
The way that the books were individual but connected was fun to read. The idea that the separate stories all tied back together with one unifying theme was a fantastic one. Reading it at first was a weird thing, the beginning was so strange compared to the end but I think the author did that on purpose. I hope he did, at least. I want it to be a trick of the mind, that by starting off weirder and growing more understandable, it makes the reader wonder if they're going crazy because they can now understand it. The others in my group think it might just have gotten more normal towards the end because the King in Yellow stopped showing up, but I don't think that's it. I think the point is that he's still there, in Jack Trent's mind as he cracked from what he learned about Sylvia, in the mystery that surrounded Rue Barree and her real identity, in the random time travel, loss, and breakdown found in 'The Demoiselle D'ys'. He was still there, he just stopped being a separate character and sort of merged into the story's characters.
Speaking of the characters, the one thing that I had a love/hate relationship with was the lack of clarity in the characters between the stories. We don't get a timeline. For most of them, we don't even know for sure that it's the same character. This book lives on the corner of "I'm just guessing" and "Hey, that connection sort of makes sense". It was very confusing trying to string the stories together. As confusing as that was though, it made for great discussion.
All in all, a fantastic read. I plan to go find a paper copy soon and throw it at all my friends' faces. More people should read this book.
Citing Your Images Should Always be a Thing
The King in Yellow at the top: